Inside ChargeKo: A Startup That is Propagating an Electric Revolution in Uganda

On a Wednesday morning, I arrived in Kiwatule, a residential suburb of Kampala. This is where the headquarters of ChargeKo, an energy startup, are located, and I had been invited by its founder, Goeffrey Mutabazi, to see their work first-hand. I quickly buy a Rolex and Minute Maid to quench my breakfast hunger, then whip out my phone to follow the map to the office.

But after a few metres of walking, I met Mutabazi, clad in a shirt and jeans walking towards me. “Do you smell your visitors from a mile away?”, I joked as we exchanged pleasantries. Mutabazi was walking to a mechanic workshop, so I followed suit. We picked up a young man in his mid-20s clad in his work overalls in which he stuffed a bunch of tools and then began the trek back to the house/office/workshop. 

The work soon began. There were a bunch of bicycles of different sizes that had been converted into electric bikes. It dawned on me that I was about to witness the making of an electric bike first-hand. The work began by removing the front tyres of the bicycle. I soon learnt that the front tyre was fitted with a mortar that eased the rider’s effort to peddle the bicycle. The mortar essentially made the e-bike, a hybrid of a motorcycle and a bicycle. 

But what caught my attention was the fitting of the battery. The battery was fairly big, about the length of an A4 paper. It was fitted below the carrier, just above the rear tyre. Fully assembling the e-bike was a process that took over two hours.

The e-bikes are still in their early stages. ChargeKo has made about five so far. There is a lot of trial and error at this point as they refine the product. Once the e-bike is assembled, it is fitted with a tracker that helps the ChargeKo team make data-driven decisions about the capabilities of its e-bikes. 

They have a third-party app where the speed at which the e-bike can run is controlled. In the app, one can also change the settings to leisure, commuting or uphill climb so that the e-bike can ease the peddling. I hopped onto the e-bike after it was successfully assembled. Even though I enjoyed it, I felt the difference between it and a normal bike was negligible. 

When Mutabazi tested it, he immediately realized that the mortar had been fitted in wrongly in the front wheel which killed my experience. The mortar was essentially spinning the tyre backwards. In typical startup fashion, Mutabazi asked the young mechanic to fix it immediately, and in under 30 minutes, we were back on the road. 

This time around, I enjoyed the full e-bike experience. You could easily cease peddling and the e-bike would still propel you forward at full speed because of the mortar even when going uphill. “I can now pay shs 2 million ( about $600) for this bike, and I can understand if you charged even more for it, but shs 2 million is the maximum fee I can part with for it!” I chimed in. “Just shs 2 million? You are just cheap!” Mutabazi replied as we laughed. 

The e-bikes are a solution for businesses that do deliveries regularly. Motorcycles are expensive with a new one costing at least shs 3.5m( about $950), and you have to factor in fuel costs every time you use it. An e-bike is a cheaper purchase and can do 90-150km on a single charge. Not only does it save costs at purchase, but it is also cheaper to operate. You just charge your battery and move. The e-bikes are also environmentally friendly because they don't release fumes like motorcycles.

ChargeKo has managed to secure a partnership with Enzo Foods, a cloud kitchen startup in Kampala, but they are exploring partnerships with the likes of Uganda Breweries and Glovo as well. Mutabazi’s move into e-bikes was an idea born out of COVID-19 when bikes became the preferred means of movement as cars and motorcycles were ground to a halt.

Mutabazi’s love for bikes runs much deeper. As a child, he rode a lot of bikes. “I loved going to the shop because it was an opportunity for me to jump on my bike. I had about three bikes throughout the duration of my childhood.” But talking about only e-bikes is to tell just a third of the ChargeKo story. To understand the ChargeKo story, we need to understand the man behind it all. 

The Making of a Startup Founder

Mutabazi was born in 1995. He suffered from asthma, and growing up in the early 2000s with asthma meant a life indoors. When it rained, he had to be summoned to the house to have warm clothing thrown over him, while his friends enjoyed playing football and doing knee slides like prime Thierry Henry in the wet grass. 

Being indoors forced Mutabazi to pivot toward indoor entertainment and leisure activities. One of the activities he picked up, was video games. This turned out to be his first business venture when he joined Makerere College School (MACOS) for his O’Level. “I was a day scholar, so I could go home every evening. I noticed that I had so many video games, but still lacked many others that my friends had. So I did a lot of barter trade and with time, I ended up with a large collection of video games.”

This is what sparked his entrepreneurial mind. He started selling video games to his fellow students. The business grew to an extent that he needed to purchase a 750GB hard drive of shs 280,000 (about $80) to accommodate his burgeoning business which now included movies and music. He ran the business in his Senior two and three, but it came to a halt when his drive crashed. This was his first proper lesson about entrepreneurship, “One day, you could have it all. And the next day you could have nothing.” 

But this experience did not deter his spirits. During his vacation after high school, he started an NGO called the Drugs and Alcohol Preclusion Club which wanted to take a different approach to halt drug and alcohol abuse among young people. They decided to go to schools to organise movie nights with messages (in the middle of the movie) from celebrities encouraging the students not to abuse drugs. But on their first event at Ntinda View High School, they made a devastating loss. After hiring sound systems and projectors, the event flopped. 

In his first year at university, Mutabazi birthed the idea of ChargeKo in 2016. He managed to convince the manager at SMSOne to take over the editorial duties of their monthly entertainment magazine, Chano8. Due to his role, Mutabazi started going to various events for coverage, and this is when he realized there was a huge challenge of charging phones at events.  “I actually used to go to the DJ to charge my phone!”, he told me. 

The Story of ChargeKo Begins. 

In 2018, Mutabazi received his first funding of $600 to build the first charging station of ChargeKo, which is located at Kenji’s. The first version of the ChargeKo charging stations was made of wood with multiple extensions wired in. It was heavy and he had to carry it on a boda boda from venue to venue at various events But it wasn't until January 2020 that Mutabazi registered his company. He had an investment plan and wanted to raise $100,000. 

He convinced a friend who had been an advisor to invest the $100,000 but his major business was events, and then COVID-19 happened. His investor had already booked venues and paid out artists for these events, and in one big swoop, all the events came to a halt as Uganda entered a lockdown to combat the spread of COVID-19. 

“Most of his cash was tied up in there (the events). So the investment was gone. And the revenue from putting charging stations at events was also gone. So we scaled back, shut down operations and suffered through the lockdown.” Mutabazi tells me. 

But the lockdown offered Mutabazi a unique learning opportunity. He had time to prepare for the next stage of ChargeKo which was mobility and storage. The first part of the business was mobility. That is, charging stations for phones and electric vehicles. So the next step was electric vehicles or motorcycles.”

But after doing some research, Mutabazi zeroed down on bicycles because electric vehicles were still too expensive for this market and the prices of batteries of electric motorcycles were also high at kilowatt per hour level.  Bicycles were the closest mobility means to a mobile phone. ”So I started thinking about e-bikes, and here we are.”

However, the e-bikes are not even ChargeKo’s best-known product. Ask anyone about ChargeKo, and they will point at their power banks. The power banks are an evolution from the early wooden charging stations that Mutabazi had to carry at events. The idea of power banks dawned on him at Nyege Nyege in 2019, a popular cultural festival. 

“When we did Nyege Nyege in 2019, we realized we had a distribution issue. We were in one place, and not everyone could get to us. The venue was big. If you leave your friends in one place, you would find them again after two days. And if you are to bring your phone, then you have to pick it up again after it has charged, and that is two trips already.”

This is when Mutabazi started thinking of power banks. “A person at an event could rent a power bank to charge their phone.”, a service Mutabazi described as “power bank swapping”. But Mutabazi realized someone could not pay the full price to rent a power bank just to charge their phone. Instead, they could purchase them for personal use. 

Mutabazi designed the power bank himself but the manufacturing was done in China. Manufacturing the power banks was a “bet the company” decision. The company emptied its coffers to get the first shipment into Uganda and had to borrow a couple of thousands of Euros to clear the taxes.  So far, ChargeKo has sold over 5,000 power banks. It still employs the battery-swapping model for its B2B clients, but the majority have been bought by individuals. 

ChargeKo has largely been bootstrapped but raised outside financing once, a $40,000 grant from UNDP in June 2021. Mutabazi’s vision has attracted a team of advisors that includes Pauline Korukundo, an electronics engineer who has worked at Kiira Motors and Zembo as the company’s Chief Technology Officer (CTO). He also counts Geoffrey Kiboneka, a Ugandan engineer in the USA who once worked at Elon Musk’s Tesla as an advisor.  

ChargeKo is looking to raise funding and has been domiciled in Delaware, to ease this process. However, Mutabazi is keeping the figures involved close to his chest. The startup has also changed its name to Karaa Inc to reflect its various products (power banks, e-bikes and a portable charging device for rural communities). 

This story is part of our Digest Africa Startup Features program. We have a database of over 3,000 startup profiles from over 30 countries in Africa. Contact us at jnlubwama@digestafrica to be featured here or to add your startup to our database. We match the startups with one of over 400 investors in our database.

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